Hooks & Descriptions: Getting the Fiction Readers to Buy
Fiction readers are like fish: You can’t land a fish unless you get it to bite your bait with a hook in it.
Most authors have a hard enough time writing their story, let alone working up a marketing approach that will get people to claim (or buy) their book.
Working with Instafreebie brought this to view. On one particular giveaway, analyzing my completed giveaways and the books which had the most claims, it really narrowed down to a single book. Which got me curious – why this book?
Instafreebie is different from Amazon and other book outlets, in that there is no preview. To claim a free book, you have to select by the cover and the 800 character description. What’s in that book doesn’t matter. (And is a subject for another time – how you use that book to get them to buy or find your other ones.)
For now, we want to see how to improve our claims. If you can get your book routinely claimed on Instafreebie, then you can use that same few words at the beginning of your book description for other outlets – and should, obviously.
This got me going, like an itch I couldn’t scratch, until I had looked up all the obscure references and boiled it down to a simple approach anyone could use.
What Makes A Good, Short Description?
Short answer: something that transports the reader immediately into the story and leaves him wanting more.
Like the fish – you have to have a “hook.” But that hook has to have a cliff-hanger as well.
All in 800 characters.
But not so tough if you know what the reader is expecting.
Writing and marketing your book are all about playing to the reader’s expectations. These are collected up into types of books, which are called genres. The difference between a Western and a Fantasy is pretty obvious.
In a Western, they are expecting something that takes place in a couple of decades around the 1880’s and in the U. S. west of the Missouri river, preferably St. Joseph (where the wagon trains and pony express started) or Kansas City (where the rail lines and the trail drives ended – at that time.)
Fantasy actually includes Science Fiction, and takes place almost any time or place other than our current contemporary settings. (Harry Potter does start off in a contemporary scene, but then takes off into magical realms.) Fantasy readers also expect that physical laws might be bent or changed in these other worlds.
On Instafreebie, you see the cover first. The cover has to meet the genre expectations. Westerns should be western, fantasies should be fantastical. Romances should be romantic (and “six-pack ab” covers are selling sex, obviously.)
So that’s your first hurdle to jump. Your cover for any genre has to be something the reader is expecting. When you look over some of these covers out there (particularly the cartoonish ones, which are best used for humor or non-fiction) you’ll see the books no one wants to select. Look over your completed giveaways and you’ll see it’s pretty obvious why the low-claimed books are that way.
The higher-claimed books are weeded out by your description. And that’s only 800 characters.
I’ve seen a lot of write-ups of what descriptions entail, and there is a lot of crud out there about how to write them.
The bottom line: you’re going to have to hook the reader with the first sentence, which gets them to read the next sentence, and that gets them to read the next sentence, and so on. Until finally at the end is where the reader has to just get the book to find out how it all works out.
All in 800 characters.
Before I lay out how to do it, let’s look over some common examples of what won’t work:
- A synopsis. That is dull and boring and won’t pull the reader in immediately. One veteran author said that such a blurb or description was simply “a character in a setting with a problem” – and that is what makes up any story. But not really a good hook. Not by itself. “Joe Jones, a handsome man with a fortune to spend, meets Mary Maywed by accident at a charity golf tournement. They are separated by distance, as they both live in separate towns hundreds of miles apart. Will they ever get back together and live happily ever after?” Boring.
- Reviews of the book. “‘Riveting and spellbinding.’ ‘This author really brings it to the table.’ ‘[Famous Reviewer] says she can’t put it down.’ In this story, you again follow the adventures of [recurring character] as they solve their engrossing mysteries along with their sidekick.” Nope.
- A laundry list of “what works.” Here, try these out: (https://www.cusd80.com/cms/lib/AZ01001175/Centricity/Domain/2098/Lead.Styles.and.Examples.doc) Knock yourself out. Some nice examples. Might work for you.
Bottom line: until you know the basics of writing and the reader expectations of your genres, you won’t really be able to succeed. Because you can’t produce what you don’t know is needed.
A Real Life Example of Proved Descriptions
The best way to improve your descriptions are to look over where your book did really well at claims and then compare this in the same giveaway to other books that did better.
I have one book that has done quite well for me in the genres I put it in, particularly mysteries. Seeing a trend, I organized a very successful giveaway for cozy mysteries. It did well there, but wasn’t the highest-claimed book.
Here is my book: Death By Advertising
It’s description goes:
I was her closest friend. But didn’t know she was dead.
Until I saw the full page ad in the paper advertising her funeral. And my company ran that ad – without my knowing it.
Another mystery was in how she died. No corpse, just an urn filled with ashes that was distributed over the harbor without any witnesses. Shown by a slick video played at her funeral.
No motive. Just a disappearance. The coroner’s report from an upstate, rural county stated natural causes. For a young 20-something advertising executive.
But there were no details left unaccounted for. Funeral arrangements paid for in advance. Even the police chief said it was a closed case. That didn’t stop Detective Johnson from being curious…
2 Bonus Stories: “A Goddess Visits” and “Long Overdue Santa.”
Claim Your Copy Now.
This works as it’s a mystery and gives the clues to the reader right off so they can start trying to solve it on their own. That’s the reader expectations of a good mystery.
But the top performing book in that giveaway was Not Enough Thyme
Her description is even better:
From lemonade to murder…
The heat isn’t the only thing that’s killer at Saxon Lake’s annual Summer Fest.
Herbalist and mini-farmer Bryony Taylor knew she couldn’t pick a better place than this small Colorado town to open her shop, Sage Wisdom, and care for her menagerie of goats, chickens, and a cat named Beryl. She just never expected to add “small-town sleuth” to her list of titles.
When the town’s beloved lawyer suddenly drops dead at the summer’s biggest event, the local gossip mill kicks into high gear. They say Barry was being blackmailed, but by who? The handsome county sheriff seems at a loss for answers and reluctantly enlists Bryony’s help. She never could resist a good mystery, but can she unravel this tangled case before more bodies turn up?
You do see in both cases where there is character-setting-problem. But the main point is the problem, where most of the words are used. Setting and characters are mentioned, but sparingly and only as needed.
The Other Approach Is From Marketing
Some people make a nice living writing their pithy 4,000 character descriptions for Amazon books. My idea is that if you can get the first 800 characters to perform well, then the rest of the 3200 Hooks & Descriptions: Getting the Fiction Readers to Buywords should help seal the deal. (I usually put a nice story excerpt there, so they can get a feel for the writing style, get into one of the character’s heads, and want to find out what happens next by the description end.)
I went back to one of the past masters of marketing, Eugene Schwartz and pulled this from “Breakthrough Copywriter” field guide.
While he is talking about creative copywriting that effectively pitches a product. Perfect for non-fiction books. But what he covers also has a great deal to do with an effective fiction description hook.
We started… with the idea that there was a definite technique that could produce better headlines than the ones you were using yesterday. And, since the headline is so vitally important to the success or failure of your ads, we devoted the first part of our book to this creative search.
Then, in the second part, we investigated the equally important problem of how to exploit that headline. How to lead the prospect from the feeding of interest and curiosity that your headline had aroused in him, into a constantly mounting conviction that this product has what he wants, and that it is absolutely capable of giving it to him.
You use body copy to accomplish this second objective – perhaps a lot of it, perhaps very little. In either case, we’ve examined the three interlocking paths by which this effective demand is created: first, the intensification of desire; then the creation of an acceptable product personality or role with which the prospect will want to identify; and then the rather abstract structure underlying your copy arrangement that produces believability of your story.
So now we’ve seen how to reach out to your prospects mind on all three emotional levels: Desire … Identification … and Believability.
Now, as our last problem, we have to put all these elements together. We have to take all these promises, these images, these devices, these structures – and weave them together into one cohesive unit, that holds your prospect’s attention from beginning to end.
In that, you can see that you will need to transport your reader immediately into the story you are writing, involve them at an emotional level through their native desires so they identify with the characters and story, helping them believe it’s real – or could be.
For most fiction, you want to give them an immediate escape from reality – a reason to claim the book and lose themselves in that alternate universe for awhile. That is the “sale” you want to accomplish. When you say “Claim Your Copy Now” that is the final step, the Call To Action that they heartily agree with – because all your copy up to that point has proved it to them.
The Genre-Specific Hook
Your description, again, needs to fulfill reader expectations to succeed, much like the opening lines of your books. The opening lines for a thriller won’t be the same for a mystery or romance. Louis L’Amour had a reputation for “writing stories that took off like a bullet.” Great for Westerns, which are generally action-adventure. A Western Romance would be probably more character-based and would start with the female lead and describe some Western setting.
Mysteries generally start with a crime committed, or shortly after one. Star Wars started with Princess Leia being chased and fired on by an Imperial Battleship in space.
There is an interesting PDF which has another “list” of hooks you can try. These generally approach the idea of a genre-specific hook. (https://www.mtnbrook.k12.al.us/cms/lib/AL01901445/Centricity/Domain/676/Narrative%20Hook.pdf)
Finding a Marketable Hook – Using “What If”
“What If” is the way to get inspiration for writing your book, but it’s also the way to step backwards and write a book and description that authors want to read.
Adam Croft is probably one of the better examples of using Facebook Ads to promote his books. But he had an epiphany when he really shifted gears and earning book sales income.
In a Self Publishing Formula interview (https://selfpublishingformula.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Ep_15_Adam_Croft.pdf) He tells the secret of his success – going from barely paying his writing bills to making around $1.5 million in a year:
Q: “What would be your main tip for somebody who would love to follow in your footsteps?”
Adam: “I think you need to be honest with yourself. I advertised on Facebook for a couple of months before launching this book, and I was advertising different books from my back catalog, and some of them worked okay. Some of them didn’t work at all. It was when I actually managed to kind of get my head out of my own backside and think, ‘You know what. Maybe the problem isn’t with advertising. Maybe the problem isn’t with the market. Maybe it’s the book that I’m advertising. It isn’t quite right.’
“That’s when I kind of thought, ‘You know what. Let’s flip this on it’s head. Rather than saying I’m going to write a book and then market it through Facebook advertising.’ I thought, ‘What’s the reason. What’s the hook they want?’ That’s when I remember that I had this book and I thought, ‘You know what. That’s got a really good hook on it.’ I won’t say I wrote it for the marketing purpose, but I had it there and I thought that was one that’s really going to work.
. . . .
“I went a step further for my next book. The one that I’m writing at the moment. The first thing I wrote, before I even had a title, before I really fleshed out the plot, the first thing I wrote was the Facebook advert for it. Then try and distill the plot down into a good advert, and thought, ‘Yeah. That’s another book that will sell.’ Then gone back and fleshed out the book and the plot from there.
“It is a case of sometimes having to think outside the box. I know as writers we’re very keen on going, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story. Let me go write it.’ We write it, then we go, ‘Right. What do we do with it now?'”
“You have to remember that, especially if you’re self-publishing, it’s a business. You’ve got to think of the customer that’s the reader. You have to, essentially, give them what they want. Especially in genre fiction, that’s what it’s set up for. That’s what crime, and romance, and erotica, and all of that, are set up for. We’re not out there to write literary masterpieces that we’re eventually proud of but no one is going to buy. We’re there selling a product, and that’s what the books are. Again, it’s that thing of having to get my head out of my backside and realize that it’s not about being a literary master. It’s about actually having that product and selling it.”
Adam Croft had this breakthrough on a book that defied conventional marketing wisdom. But he had set it aside, incomplete. As he describes it in an article for KoboWritingLife (https://kobowritinglife.com/2018/06/27/how-generating-a-super-marketable-hook-has-transformed-my-career-twice/):
It was the autumn of 2015, and although I’d been just about covering the bills through my writing for around five years, I was a long way from being able to call myself a successful writer. I’d tried everything in that time, but just couldn’t find the ‘thing’ that would kick my career on to the next stage.
Then I discovered the potential power of Facebook Ads. I ran a few adverts and had some mild success, but nothing that I could scale up and really make a big difference with. It became apparent to me that I needed to ‘hook’ readers in somehow.
I distinctly remember waking up at four o’clock in the morning, remembering the discarded manuscript that sat in my desk drawer. It was different from my other books: a psychological thriller rather than a police procedural novel or a murder mystery. It wasn’t part of a series, either—the kiss of death in marketing terms, if you believed the indie publishing experts of the time. What it did have, though, was a killer hook.
Could you murder your wife to save your daughter? was the elevator pitch for the book— Her Last Tomorrow—which I’d written about two-thirds of before discarding. I liked the idea, but the plot just wasn’t working out. It was easier to go back to my tried and tested series. But if I was ever going to have success with Facebook Ads, I knew it would be with that book. What reader could resist seeing a hook like that and not want to find out what happened in the book?
So I spent the next few weeks working out the plot, rewriting large sections of the book and, ultimately, finishing it. I released it on 5 December 2015 and sales were steady, but not hugely impressive. Then I switched on the Facebook Ads.
It became apparent very quickly that this book was super marketable. Every dollar I spent in advertising was being doubled, sometimes trebled, in book sales that same day.
By 2017, I had another hook for a book which I was sure could be just as successful as Her Last Tomorrow. The book, which was titled Tell Me I’m Wrong had the hook: What if you discovered your husband was a serial killer?
These two hooks have a lot in common. They both pose direct questions. They both demand impossible choices or decisions. They both involve the reader through use of ‘you’. They’re both clearly domestic in their setting.
– – – –
The long and the short was his working up the hook, then the ad, then writing the book.
For Instafreebie, it would be the same point. Not just try to market an existing book, but actually go back and find the idea that prompted you to write the story to begin with distill it into a hook. Then use that hook to write your 800 character description.
Of course, in the future, you can create your hooks directly from the “What If” you started with. This changes your output radically, as it starts every book from the question of how marketable it is. And that goes back to understanding your genre, meaning your reader expectations.
This is my current use of all that data:
- I’ll get an idea for a book
- Then create the cover and an “empty book” in Calibre with the pen name I’m using for that genre. Calibre creates an empty text document by default.
- Then write the Instafreebie description.
- I’ll leave that open on one screen and then minimize everything else.
- Then open up that text document in a bare bones editor and start typing. Like this blog post – just straight ahead, going back and forth to edit it on the fly.
- Finally, I copy and paste it into OpenOffice word processor to format the chapter headings start final revisions and editing.
If the story isn’t going to work, I’ll usually see it in the description.
Try This For Yourself
As usual, I don’t expect you to accept this just as it’s written. Because it won’t work for you the same way. You’re going to have to play around with this and see what works for you and how you can tweak the process to fit with your own stories.
You’ll learn more by comparing the descriptions of your completed giveaways, especially the top-end ones. They will either meet the reader expectations or not. After digesting several of these, you’ll have a better idea. After writing (or re-writing) several of your own, you’ll have even better ideas of how to improve your descriptions.
Best of luck with this.
Also published on Medium.